Futility, the 76ers, and the Bizarre Difficulty of Tanking
The Philadelphia 76ers avoided the ignominy of holding the record for the longest losing streak in NBA history by defeating the Detroit Pistons handily Saturday night, topping their previous largest margin of victory by ten points. Coming into the season, the 76ers were pretty much unanimously assumed to be the worst team in the league as new general manager Sam Hinkie traded the team’s best player and sole All Star in Jrue Holiday for a potential new franchise centerpiece who would be unable to play a single game this season. Clearly, the team was in full tank mode. This was even further solidified by trading key rotation players Spencer Hawes, Lavoy Allen, and Evan Turner at the trade deadline for pretty much nobody of actual worth, leaving Thaddeus Young, James Anderson, and Michael Carter-Williams as the only players on the 76ers’ roster than any other NBA team would have any interest whatsoever in having for themselves.
What no one expected though was how the 76ers started the season. They began their season by winning their first three games, including a win against the defending champion Heat in which Michael Carter-Williams, in his first game as an NBA player, nearly had a quadruple double. If anyone had wanted to convince this seminary student that the universe is completely random and indifferent, the 76ers’ 3-0 start to the season was as good of an argument as any. It was fun to imagine Sam Hinkie being secretly outrageous at his team’s success and losing faith in rationality or logic, but the team - and Carter-Williams - regressed to the mean after that impressive and wholly unexpected start. Carter-Williams, seen as the presumptive Rookie of the Year based on that game alone, has attained a grand total of one tenth of a win share this season - not that any other rookie has really set themselves apart. Unsurprisingly, the 76ers have not been very fun to watch this season. While other teams have been more tragicomic - Hello Cleveland! - or disappointing - Sup Detroit? - the 76ers’ season has been somewhat sad, but not overwhelmingly so because well, we all saw it coming. They don’t even care that much. Even their coach said before the game against Detroit that they were on a “three to five year plan.”
What is most bizarre about the 76ers’ losing streak - and NBA losing streaks in general - is the fact that the two longest winning streaks in NBA history are both longer than the longest losing streak. Of course, the Lakers’ thirty three game winning streak from 1972 can be sort of demythologized by realizing that this was during the peak of the ABA and several would-be NBA stars including Zelmo Beaty, Julius Erving, Rick Barry, Artis Gilmore, Dan Issel, and Mel Daniels were playing in the ABA that season so the competition was kind of diluted to say the least, but still, it was thirty three games! It’s more difficult to do that with the Heat’s twenty seven game streak from last year except to say that well, the East wasn’t that good. I wish it were possible to develop some grand and interesting theory from this historical anomaly, but I don’t think it actually indicates that it is more difficult to lose than it is to win in the NBA. Maybe it’s easier for some really bad teams to occasionally have a good night than for a great one to have a bad one.
This season has seen a torrent of tanking as this year’s draft is presumably really good, (I wouldn’t know, I haven’t watched a single second of college basketball all year and not having to hear about it anymore is the best non-weather related aspect of moving to California from Indiana) but tanking has turned out to be harder than expected for a lot of teams. In spite of this losing streak, the 76ers still do not have the NBA’s worst record as the Milwaukee Bucks are still two games behind them. Ironically, the Bucks did not want to tank at all. Their front office threw forty million dollars this offseason to pick up such luminaries as O.J. Mayo, Gary Neal, Caron Butler, and Zaza Pachulia. Not the greatest moves in the world, but hey, anything for an eight seed. Meanwhile, another team projected to do abysmally, the Phoenix Suns, have become one of the most exciting teams in the league to watch and are currently fighting for a playoff spot in the hectic and absolutely brutal Western Conference where just a few games separate a five seed from lottery balls. While there are certainly many teams who are still very bad this year, several of them - the Kings, Knicks, Pelicans, Bucks, and Pistons among others - were genuinely trying to avoid the lottery this year while others who had planned to tank - most notably the aforementioned Suns - are doing quite well. Who would have ever thought that trying to lose would not guarantee losing?
What does make the 76ers harder to watch than some other bad teams is that these players are certainly not trying to tank and there is a sadness in watching their passionate, yet futile, striving. Every game, the coach is fighting, as are the players. I mean, this team has consisted of several mercenaries on ten day contracts who are fighting for another chance after those ten days expire. They aren’t tanking; they’re just not that good. Take the team the 76ers beat tonight for example: the Pistons have a much better roster, but gosh are they listless. Also, while other bad teams in the NBA have a player that makes NBA fanatics want to turn in regardless - I know I’m not alone in getting sucked into more than a few Bucks games solely because of Giannis Antetokounmpo - the 76ers do not have that unless you have a thing for midrange jumpers, in which case, Thaddeus Young is your man.
Why does futility interest us? Why was I perversely cheering for the 76ers to set the record even though I wish no ill will towards that team or any players on it (especially not Tony Wroten, who I inexplicably love)? I don’t think it’s that we take any sort of gleeful joy in the 76ers’, or any other team’s, failings, but every single time a record is set - undignified or otherwise - there is the opportunity to see something that has never been seen before and there is a sense in which that is worth celebrating no matter how humiliating the setting of the record may be. There’s lots of bad teams and hundreds of games every year and we yearn for something to make this season unique, worth watching so we cling to every little detail that could possibly distinguish last night’s Pistons/76ers game from all the other late season games between two bad teams heading towards the lottery.
The problem with this is that we miss that there is something inherently unique about every single NBA game regardless of historical context. There is a beauty within the very essence of the game that means that in every single game, no matter how trivial or inconsequential, we will see ball movement, ball handling, shots, lay-ups, dunks, or absurdities that will never be replicated in just that way again. They will be approximated, but never recreated. There is a beauty in that which does not necessitate records. The game is gorgeous and we should realize that and that should be enough. Although, if you’re a 76ers fan who was cheering for them to lose against Detroit to get that much closer to obtaining Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, or whomever else, I get that too.